The Seventh Circuit court of appeals ruled to allow a man, wrongly imprisoned for 29 years, to proceed with a civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutor and crime lab who framed him for rape and murder.
Ralph Armstrong was convicted in 1980 for the rape and murder of 19-year old college student, Charise Kamps. Armstrong, who was within Kamps circle of friends, was on parole for a sex crime conviction in New Mexico at the time of Kamps' murder.
John Norsetter, the investigator at the murder scene, and the prosecutor, concealed, ignored and even destroyed exculpatory evidence in bad faith. In what the court called Norsetter's “shocking course of prosecutorial misconduct” he bypassed testing the actual murder weapon, a bathrobe belt used to strangle Kamps, for DNA evidence.
Instead, semen found on the accompanying bathrobe was forensically analyzed. The secretor type matched Armstrong’s, but also matched that of Kamp’s boyfriend and 80 percent of the population, because more precise DNA analysis was not available in 1980.
Recently used drug paraphernalia found at the murder scene that could have provided DNA evidence of who was last with Kamps was not tested. Police put the small mirror, razor blade and silver straw into a plastic bag and left them in a police station storage locker and eventually lost them.
An eyewitness, Riccie Orebia, who reported seeing a suspicious man leaving Kamps apartment, described the suspect as roughly 5’6” tall, 165 pounds, having no tattoos and a mustache.
Norsetter had Orebia hypnotized and showed her pictures of Armstrong. She later picked Armstrong, who is 6’2” tall, weighs around 200 pounds, and has “dark, noticeable tattoos” and no moustache, as the suspect within a lineup with other police officers wearing wigs to resemble Armstrong’s hair. Orebia, later described the line up as “rigged” according to court documents.
Another witness called Norsetter in 1995 to report that Armstrong’s brother, Stephen Armstrong, had confessed to killing Kamps. Norsetter never disclosed the call and never followed up on the confession. Stephen Armstrong disappeared after the crime and died in 2005.
Armstrong made several appeal attempts after he was sentenced to life plus 16 years in 1981. Using newly available DNA testing that excluded him as the source of the semen found on the bathrobe, Armstrong appealed his conviction. But it was denied and affirmed by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in 1993.
The innocence Project became involved that same year, and more advanced DNA testing found on the bathrobe and belt “definitively excluded Armstrong as the source” of the evidence originally used to convict him.
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin vacated Armstrong’s conviction and ordered a new trial in 2006. The court also ordered the prosecution to inform the defense of any future tests on the evidence and to provide any test results.
While awaiting a new trial, Armstrong remained in prison. During that time, a state lab technician, Karen Daily reported that the DNA samples tested on the bathrobe and belt eliminated Armstrong as a source. Norsetter did not disclose this information to the defense, and instead announced that he would proceed with the retrial of Armstrong.
Norsetter then had another crime lab technician, Daniel Campbell, deliberately complete inconclusive tests on the remaining DNA sample, destroying all remaining exculpatory evidence. The destruction of the last DNA sample made it impossible for Armstrong to “have a fair trial but also kept him in prison for three extra years,” according to the opinion.
Armstrong as released in 2009 and his conviction dismissed, because his “due process right to a fair trial [had] been irreparably compromised.”
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Norsetter, Daily and Campbell all argued that they had a qualified immunity as government officials and that Armstrong could pursue a remedy in a state tort action. The court rejected their “absurd” argument, adding that “by no stretch of the legal imagination” could a state-law tort remedy “be deemed an adequate or meaningful remedy for years of wrongful imprisonment[.]”
Armstrong was granted permission to proceed with his civil liability lawsuit for the egregious bad faith destruction of exculpatory evidence in his case. Armstrong is seeking $58 million for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
The case is Armstrong v. Daily, et al. Case no. 13-3424 in the United States Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit.